Northern Ireland abortion reforms ‘a test of May’s feminism’

Shami Chakrabarti calls on prime minister to negotiate with parties to relax laws

Theresa May has been challenged to demonstrate her feminist credentials by relaxing Northern Irelands abortion laws after Irish voters supported liberalisation in a landslide referendum result.

The shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, said abortion reforms that brought the rights of women in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK were a test of the prime ministers feminism.

The Labour frontbencher added that unless devolution was restored to Stormont quickly, the government could no longer ignore the plight of vulnerable women in Northern Ireland seeking abortions and should act.

The Irish government increased the pressure on May by suggesting that the Republic, where new laws are expected to be in place by the end of the year, had set the tone for what should happen in the North.


What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland and most of Europe where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has theharshest criminalpenalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory,life imprisonmentcan be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland Catholic and Protestant do not favour reform, despite theUN sayingthe UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

The employment minister, Regina Doherty, said: The resounding mandate that was given by the Republic of Ireland managed to set the tone with regard to what should happen in Northern Ireland, but obviously they are responsible for their own.

The Irish health minister, Simon Harris, will seek cabinet backing on Tuesday to draft legislation that would allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, subject to medical advice and a cooling-off period, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.

May has faced calls for a referendum to relax legislation in Northern Ireland, after signalling that she would not risk alienating her Democratic Unionist party (DUP) allies by letting MPs settle the matter with a parliamentary vote.

About 160 MPs have backed a cross-party letter, championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, saying the government should legislate as Northern Ireland will now be the only place in Britain and Ireland where abortion is illegal in most circumstances.

Labour has now backed those calls. We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay, Chakrabarti said.

You cant have democracy without fundamental human rights, and the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough. I think Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say: Yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women.

Labour has said it is committed to extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland and that it would be looking at legislative options to try to orchestrate a vote in the Commons.

The party has come under pressure internally from the nine centrist candidates for the ruling NEC to support a parliamentary vote rather than a referendum, which they said would be fundamentally wrong. They also urged Labour to whip any vote that supported the extension of existing laws, rather than new legislation.

However, Downing Street has rejected the move on the grounds that abortion is a devolved matter that should be decided by the Northern Ireland executive and assembly, both of which have been suspended for almost 18 months.

Chakrabarti suggested that unless devolution was restored quickly then Westminster MPs had a responsibility to act. If this blockage continues these vulnerable women can be ignored no longer, she told BBC Radio 4.

The anti-abortion DUP, whose 12 MPs the prime minister relies on to prop up her minority government, are against Westminster taking a decision on liberalising abortion while Stormont is suspended.

The DUP MP Jim Shannon said: It hasnt gone to direct rule just yet and at this moment in time I dont see that happening. Until such time as that change is made then the Northern Ireland assembly will be the methodology, the only methodology, to make that change.

A supreme court judgment on whether abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with international human rights is expected this year.

Abortions are only available in Northern Irish hospitals for women whose life or health is in danger; 23 were carried out between 2013-14. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which an abortion can be performed legally.

Les Allamby, Northern Irelands commissioner for human rights, who is backing the supreme court case, said that if the ruling went against the existing legislation, and Stormont was still suspended, the UK government would have to act.

It would no longer be a little local difficulty if there was legislation that wasnt in compliance with human rights laws and standards. Then if there was a refusal to deal with that and hitherto the UK government has always abided by decisions of the highest court on issues of incompatibility and human rights then yes, that would become a very significant issue.

The experience of Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England for an abortion after doctors said her unborn child would not survive outside the womb, was key to instigating the court case.

Ewart joined the calls for the UK government to step in. If we had an assembly here, we would be literally at their doors begging, but we dont so we are really hoping that we can have help from Westminster and Theresa May to give us the access we need, she said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/28/northern-ireland-abortion-reforms-theresa-may-feminism-chakrabarti

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